Prison Journal

Prison Journal, January

I am called to the jail. Heroin. The jail is new so I do not know the protocol. I am new at this too. My name is supposed to be at the desk for visitors.

At one o’clock I show up at the jail. “Empty your pockets, please,” I am asked as I am about to walk through the metal detector.

I empty my pockets in the plastic tray.

“You have a weapon in your pocket,” a large female guard says, “didn’t you read the sign ‘no weapons’ no exceptions, take that weapon out of here.”

Weapon? Oh my God, I forgot, I am carrying a knife, a pocket knife, but not a civilized Swiss army knife but, well, it’s a real knife. I grew up in Detroit.

The guard is practically yelling at me. I feel, of course, ridiculous. I had forgotten about that knife. I take the knife outside the jail and there is a large planter with dead flowers in it, I hide the knife in the planter. Now it is a concealed weapon I suppose.

I come back into the jail, again up to the metal detector, the big guard says, “I saw you stash that weapon.”

“I planted it,” I said, “It’s not a weapon.”

“That’s beautiful,” she said, not smiling, I think maybe she is making fun of me.

I go up to the visitors desk. “Too late,” said the guard behind the desk.

“I was here on time.”

“Too late now.” I think he saw me plant the knife.

“Wait a second,” I said, my voice rising, “that’s not fair.”

“It’s jail,” he said.

On my way to my car, I wondered why I didn’t tell him I am the rabbi. I can visit any time if I just told him I am the rabbi.

In the car and down Wydown Boulevard. Too fast, uh oh, cop.

Cop pulls me over and gives me a ticket for ten over. I sit there with my mouth shut, inside I am howling “tell him you work with the police, tell him you created a chaplaincy program for the city PD, open your mouth and tell him!”

I didn’t tell him. I was speeding. Ten over.

I went back to the jail the next day. No weapons.

“You’re not on the list,” said the guard.

“I’m the rabbi.”

“Oh. What church?”

“No church. Synagogue.”

He sends me upstairs to get approval from Mr. D.

“I’m the rabbi.”

“Do you have any proof?”

“Got Torah –”

We both laugh. He takes me into his office.

He is a Christian man he tells me. We talk soulfully in his office about jail, freedom, God, holiness, the doors that open to me because of my profession. I love these conversations. He asks me if he can call on me to come and visit when he needs a rabbi.

“I will come to see anybody, any time.”

I visit with the prisoner. We talk about jail, freedom, drugs, narrow places, freedom stories, the truth that we carry our jail around with us, or we don’t.

Later, my son asks me to take his car in for service. I drive it over to the dealer, I sit in the waiting room and read the sedrah from the Torah, Beshallach, the Song of the Sea.

Soon I am the only one in the room. There is a TV in the room, Jeopardy. I love Jeopardy. I haven’t seen Jeopardy in years and I remember how much I love Jeopardy. It’s celebrity Jeopardy from Las Vegas, not as good.

I try to concentrate on the holy Torah. Oprah comes on. Female sexual dysfunction. Oh God. The TV is loud and way up high on the wall, couldn’t turn it down if I wanted to.

I stand up and watch. I am watching because there is no one else in the room. In walks a young woman with a large text book and a notebook, she sits down in the room, starts reading, I pretend I am not watching the TV though I am standing in front of it looking up as if to a mountain and sit down in my seat by the door. I feel, of course, ridiculous.

TV. Vaginal dryness. Self stimulation. Oh God. I bury my head in my book. Oprah.

I take out a pad of paper and begin to scribble. I am writing this piece, actually, to try and keep my eyes away from the television. Do not look at the girl sitting across from me. Lubricants. Vibrators. I am writing feverishly. Oh jeez.

I keep my head in my pad, scribbling away. Does the testosterone cream work? Oprah. Oh God. Don’t look up.

How large? What can Leticia do to improve her sex life? Be right back. Oh God.

Finally, I can’t stand it. I glance up, I pick up my head, just a glimpse to see what she is doing, big book, notebook, sitting across from me in the room waiting for the cars. Oh my God. Our eyes lock. Just that moment, in that same second she lifts her head too and our eyes lock.

“I’m the rabbi.”

Silence. She nods. Jeez, do I feel stupid. She goes back to her book.

I’m the rabbi, God, finally I have it integrated. Hey Oprah, hey you two sisters on TV who opened a clinic for female sexual dysfunction. I got it now, let me practice saying it so I’m not caught off guard.

I’m the rabbi.

United States of America